The Sound of 9/11: Voices Escape Singing Sad, Sad Songs

Music to Remember 9/11

1 – “Imagine” – John Lennon and The Plastic Ono Band (with The Flux Fiddlers)

“Imagine” does not preach. Unlike Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” or Paul McCartney’s 9/11 response “Freedom,” it doesn’t strive to be an anthem either. Rhetoric buzzwords “peace,” “love,” and “freedom” are notably absent from the lyrics. Inspired by haiku-like pieces in Yoko Ono’s 1964 book Grapefruit, it simply guides imagining a world without the social structures that divide us.

I distinctly remember the lyrics of “Imagine” displayed in car windows and on people’s lawns in the fall of 2001.  Besides reminding us of hope after the tragedy, it was also musical relief for a strange time when songs like Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” and Enrique Iglesias’ “Hero” were momentarily unescapable.

“Imagine” – released 40 years ago yesterday – is not a protest song or a tribute to heroism. It’s a plea and an invitation – the subtle contrast between the two is why it is so compelling. Whereas the verse appeals directly at “you” (including all those who aren’t imagining), the refrain is a call to join “us” (the people who are).  John – aware skeptics will mock the verses’ notion of changing the world through changing our minds – uses the refrain to answer back.  He doesn’t argue though, he offers an open invitation: “you may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one, I hope some day you will join us…” In doing so he implicitly asserts the collective power of individuals united, much like Alfred Bryan’s World World I protest standard “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier”. Afterall, if no parent raised their child to fight, or if everyone kept a vision of a unified world in their minds – could there even be wars?

I know, I know – this is Lennon’s naïve mind games. To be sure, he offers no outline of what society will look like when “the world will live as one” – nor a plan of how it can be achieved. But that is precisely why the song appeals to so many, so strongly. Lennon doesn’t reveal his dream, he asks YOU to imagine a vision we all can share.

John’s singing is understated, as if he’s not singing at all, but rather speaking. Almost anybody could play that signature piano riff. Ditto the drumming. Visually it’s associated with white, the color of almost everything in the promotional video (his piano, the room he plays it in, Yoko’s dress, etc).  It completely lacks flash and grandeur – yet conceptually, it is huge. It’s a simple song that asks you to think big. Will you join “us”?

“Imagine” is often discussed as an “anti-” song (i.e. Geoffrey Giuliano writes in Lennon in America “Imagine” is “anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic“), but its power is its positivity. Coming on the tail of Lennon’s activist agitator singles (“Instant Karma,” “Power to the People”) and post-Beatles “primal scream” album John Lennon Plastic Ono Band, “Imagine” was by design a bit saccharine. Yet inside the sweetness of the melody and simplicity of the musical arrangement are some of John’s most controversial ideas. Despite being widely loved for decades, generally accepted as a cross-generational iconic song and adopted as a post-9/11 unifier, some folks still take issue with its lyrics – particularly the opening line, “Imagine there’s no heaven…”

In remembrance of the decade anniversary of 9/11, a performance of “Imagine” on Exeter Cathedral’s bells will webcast on the morning of Sunday, September 11th. The church’s website comments on this controversy, “John Lennon’s song reminds us, painfully, that organised religion has used the lure of heaven and the fear of hell for countless generations in order to exercise control through fear. Perhaps it was religion that got us in this mess in the first place and only the true love that is God will get us out of it.”

Strong words, especially considering the source.

Listen to Exeter Cathedral’s bells play “Imagine” here live on September 11. A recording will be available here immediately following the broadcast.

Picture above left – Public Domain Department of Defense, World Trade Center Memorial by Denise Gould
2 – “Jesus, Etc.” – Wilco

The two strange looking towers on the album cover, its lyrics, even the album title – everything about Wilco’s Yankee Foxtrot Hotel can be interpreted as an obscured recounting of – and surreal reaction to – the events of 9/11. It’s certainly coincidence.  Although not in stores until April 2002, the entire album was written, recorded and mastered prior that tragic day.

If Wilco had their way, Yankee Foxtrot would have been released on September 11th.  Instead, their record company infamously rejected it, delaying its release.  In the meantime, the album spread rapidly on peer-to-peer sites, and then officially streamed on the band’s website – in September 2001.


Sure, it was a fluke synchronicity. But for college music geeks like myself in the fall of 2001 – to whom this album was required listening – it was almost painfully profound.

Ultimately Yankee Foxtrot is so much more than just a time piece. Still, when I think of that awkward period following 9/11 I think of lots of music – but only two full albums immediately come to mind: this and Mercury Rev’s All Is Dream (released on – yep, you guessed it, September 11th). Of the two, Rev brings back more personal feelings of the changes I was going through at the time, while Wilco reminds me more of the social climate of the period and the nation’s mood following the tragedy.

Just listen to Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics. He begins, “I am an American aquarium drinker, I assassin down the avenue/ I’m hiding out in the big city blinking…” The sounds of radio frequencies at the start – like lost signals searching for humanity – are made literal in “Radio Cure” – “Cheer up, honey I hope you can/ My mind is filled with radio cures, electronic surgical words.”  Then there’s the philosophy discourse that is “War on War” – “you have to learn how to die, if you wanna be alive.”

Most eery however is “Jesus, Etc” – “Jesus don’t cry… tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad, sad songs/ tuned to chords strung down your cheeks, bitter memories, bitter melodies turning your orbit around.”

It wasn’t just troubled lyrics though, it was equally their avant Americana musical settings. The experimentation in the arrangements that persuaded Reprise Records against releasing it sounded to many fans exactly how that moment’s communal confusion felt. During album climax “Ashes of American Flags,” the instruments collapse – like debris from the twin towers falling  – and the lyrics reach their peak: “I want a good life with a nose for things/ A fresh wind and bright skies to enjoy my sufferings…”

There were numerous albums coincidences in synch with the WTC attacks – Google Dream Theater Live Scenes From New York, Slayer God Hates Us All, Biohazard Uncivilization for examples – but Wilco’s existential yearning particuliarly came into focus because it was both perfectly timed and timeless. We all want a good life, of course – 9/11 forced us to reconsider what that even means. Musicians are not sages – they hold no answers. Still, when the song concludes, “I would like to salute the ashes of American flags, and all the fallen leaves filling up shopping bags,” it sure felt like Wilco was on to something that could bring us clarity after 9/11.

Ten years later, it still does – and that is why the sense of everything falling apart at the core of Yankee Foxtrot isn’t just a soundtrack for uncertain times, it’s the album’s – and us listener’s – saving grace. Under the ruble of the album’s sonic collapse shines a light that suggests even mountains crashing to the sea can not keep us from searching for a good life…

…or re-evaluating what that might be.

3 – “The National Anthem” – Radiohead

On September 11, 2001 Radiohead played Berlin.  Apparently a somber show, before “Paranoid Android” they paused to explain the attacks – “that’s why, um, things are a little bit mute tonight. I’m sorry ’bout that” (as can be heard at the start of the video above).

According to Chuck Klosterman’s book “Killing Yourself to Live” however, Radiohead’s predicted 9/11 the year before on Kid A:The first song on Kid A paints the Manhattan skyline at 8:00 A.M. on Tuesday morning; the song is titled “Everything in Its Right Place”… It is the sound of woozy, ephemeral normalcy… The consciously misguided message is this: Science is the answer. Technology solves everything, because technology is invulnerable. And this is what almost everyone in America thought around 8:30 A.M. But something happens three and a half minutes into “Kid A”. It suddenly doesn’t feel right, and you don’t exactly know why. This is followed by track three, “The National Anthem”…

OK, enough with the odd 9/11 album conspiracy-type theories. As with Yankee Foxtrot, it’s certainly coincidence. In any case, Kid A articulated technological-driven alienation and post-Y2K paranoia in a way that found new relevance a year later – as post-9/11 confusion. The uncertainty the album portrays is perhaps most potent in “The National Anthem,” and as with Wilco, there’s a beauty to the chaos that feels strangely healing.


4 and 5 – The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and David Bowie covering Simon and Garfunkle’s “America”

Pete Townshend wrote “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in the early ’70s as a reaction against “revolution”-oirented radicals of the ’60s counter-culture. Played thirty years after its initial release as part of The Who’s show-stealing, career-revitalizing set in The Concert for New York City, it took on new meaning – particularly for aging boomers and their children:

“We’ll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgment of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song

Don’t get fooled again

The Who very famously closed The Concert for New York City with a big bang. But it was an equally memorable – albeit more frequently forgotten – reinvention of Simon and Garfunkle’s “America” by David Bowie that opened the benefit show with a twist. 

“I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why…”

Against a playfully basic auto-accompaniment waltz on a tiny keyboard – as if he was a kid toying with his first Casio on Christmas morning 1986 – Bowie reminded us where we had been and where we were, and still are, going: “all come to look for America…”

VH1 will rebroadcast The Concert for New York City 9/11 tribute concert on September 11th in its entirety, commercial-free.  Beginning at 4 p.m. ET, it will stream on VH1.com simultaneously.  It is being billed as a”one-time only replay.”


6 – “The Disintegration Loops 1.1” – William Basinski

In another example of poetic coincidence, ambient composer William Basinski finished recording The Disintegration Loops on the morning of September 11, 2001 as he sat with friends on his Brooklyn roof and watched the World Trade Center towers collapse.  The album was created from magnetic tape recordings Basinski recorded in 1982 that literally disintegrated as he digitally transferred them in 2001.

The Wordless Music Orchestra will perform Maxim Moston’s orchestration of “The Disintegration Loops” at the Temple of Dendur free tribute show on September 11th. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 3:30 performance will also be webcast.

UPDATE The Wordless Music Orchestra at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur webcast by NPR Music and Q2 is now an archive stream – click to hear.  In addition to the world premiere of Maxim Moston’s orchestration of  The Disintegration Loops the concert also included three pieces for string quartet: Ingram Marshall’s Fog Tropes II, Osvaldo Golijov’s Tenebrae and Alfred Schnittke’s Collected Songs Where Every Verse Is Filled With Grief.

Read and watch more about 9/11 and the music of the period here. –  What music reminds you of the time? 

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